Understanding Transgender Issues Starts with Good Questions

Jonathan Merritt

As legal issues and theological debates grow around transgender issues, people of faith are speaking out in greater numbers for full protection and equality. Recent pieces by several authors are fine contributions for Catholics to reflect further on how the Church and its members can better understand and support trans Catholics.

Writing for Religion News Service, Jonathan Merritt asks Christians to complicate their thinking around transgender matters because they are far more complex than how anti-LGBT voices depict them. Stemming from his experiences with a fellow church member who is a trans man, the author speaks to the deficiency Christians (and one can safely add Catholics) have in thinking and speaking about transgender people. He writes:

“I suspect many Christians are like me and haven’t considered all the theological, ethical, and scientific intricacies of this issue. Perhaps we are afraid that what we discover will stretch the bounds of our thinking. My unsettled thoughts about how to reconcile Kris’s gender identification with my Christian faith tempt me to shrink back from my friendship with Kris. And yet, I’m so glad I haven’t. Our conversations challenge my thinking and force me to ask new and difficult questions of myself. Kris and I may not end up agreeing on everything, but we press on in our friendship anyway. And I think we’re both better for it.

“The transgender issue is an important one and Christians must grapple with it in all its messiness and complexity. So let’s not pretend that any armchair theologian should be able to figure it out. Kris deserves better. And so do all of our transgender neighbors.”

Sharon Groves, the director of the Human Rights Campaign’s Religion and Faith program, writes in The Washington Post about a positive contribution transgender members bring to communities of faith, namely the opportunity for wider reflection on creation, God, and oneself. She first writes a series of questions:

“[What if] we actually took seriously the question of what it means to be human and, more expansively, what it means to live into our full humanity? What if rather than saying that biology is destiny we actually explored the ways in which we all experience our own gender identities and expressions? What if we learned about the lived experiences of our transgender peers?”

Groves asks Christians to willingly engage in a respectful, open-minded questioning by encountering transgender people, their stories, and broader religious questions as a way forward. Fundamentally, understanding transgender community members will also involved understanding oneself in a deeper way on issues of gender, as she writes:

Sharon Groves

“The core teachings of Christianity are to love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength and love your neighbor as yourself. We cannot love God fully if we don’t do the work of trying to understand who God is for each of us. When we look at the most moving and transformative religious writing – from Augustine to Thomas Merton – there is a sense of openness and curiosity to the experience of God.  We can’t love God if we don’t try to glean how God works in our lives.

“Similarly, we can’t really love our neighbors if we cast off all curiosity about who they are and their experience of life in the world. And finally, if we remain uninterested in ourselves – about how we come to know our gender–then we can’t really love the difference that shows up in our neighbors…

“To live our lives with true compassion and caring, we need to move beyond slogans and ask the deeper questions about gender and the diversity of experiences.   But to do that, one must ask the right question and be open to a multitude of answers.”

In a sign of hope for the Catholic Church, Governor Jerry Brown of California, who is a Catholic, recently signed a groundbreaking law protecting transgender students in that state. The law allows transgender students to use bathrooms and play on the sports teams which match their gender identity most fully. However, comments by an administrator in Nebraska’s Catholic schools opposing a similar law in that state prove that work remains in securing equality for transgender people.  At least one previous story on Bondings 2.0 reveals the pressures trans church employees feel, as well as their fears of discriminatory firings.  Another story shows the support that Catholics can express for transgender people.

A positive first step is for every Catholic to deepen their understanding of transgender issues by questioning their existing beliefs, educating themselves, and encountering trans people in their communities. Share your thoughts and resources on how Catholics can better understand transgender issues in the ‘Comments’ section below.

–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry

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